Transitions, Juxtapositions and the Night of the Exodus

“O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing,
ever waning,
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;”

opening of “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana

This 13th century Latin poem was put to music by Carl Orff in 1935-6. It describes fate as an ever “whirling wheel” in which a person goes through life with ups and downs.  The pace of the rise and fall is unclear, but presumably happens over time as the wheel slowly rotates.

There are, however, moments in time when two competing realities exist side-by-side. A woman may be pregnant one second and a mother the next. The transition lasts for a moment.

There are also situations when a transition is not only defined by time but by space. A person can be inside a house and then outside. A simple threshold is crossed to change not only location but situation.

In rare situations, alternative realities are neither separated nor juxtaposed, but twist and fold upon each other. Such is the Night of the Exodus and the first night of Passover.

The Night of the Exodus

On the night of last plague on Egypt, the killing of the first born, the Jews were commanded to take a lamb, slaughter it, paint its blood on the doorposts of the home, then roast the lamb and devour every morsel.

The lamb was considered a deity in ancient Egypt. Killing it, roasting it and displaying its blood on the outside of the homes was designed as a clear affront to Egyptian sensibilities. They could smell the roasting of the meat and see how the Jews enjoyed sticking their faces in it.

Remarkably, the Jews did this while still slaves. They were still in Egypt and not yet free as they feasted and killed the Gods of their masters. They took liberties associated with free folk, pulling their future freedom into the moment of slavery. These choreographed actions helped transform their mental state from one of servants to masters. When God said “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you,” (Exodus 12: 13) it was truly designed as a way for the slaves to break the orientation of servitude.

Every generation afterwards was also commanded to remember that remarkable night – to place themselves as if they were there thousands of years ago – making that transformation at the Seder, holding the matzah, the bread of slavery, together with the pascal lamb, the symbol of salvation. Holding both items together serves as a vehicle to transform time, space and mental state, just as Jewish ancestor did long ago.

The Seder

The Passover Hagaddah captures the essence of these curious juxtapositions and transformations at the beginning of the Magid section with a short paragraph called Ha Lachma Anya.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Taken literally, each person at the Seder is facing a fossil, a 3,300-year old object. Perhaps more incredible, this item from antiquities is actually connected to relatives who lived far way (time AND place) in Egypt. On this special night we display a family heirloom.

All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat.

Based on the juxtaposition of the sentences it would appear that we are going to eat this precious piece of history. While we may be a tad hungry, it seems inappropriate to eat something irreplaceable.

All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover.

This sentence seemingly addresses the whole world. As food is the cure for hunger, Passover must be the remedy for “need.” It is unclear whether the needs are physical – like food for hunger – mental, spiritual or emotional. Perhaps celebrating Passover helps them all.

Now we are here, next year in the land of Israel.

The paragraph pivots again. After two invitations for people to participate in the meal and holiday, there is a declaration that we will celebrate next Passover in Israel. Presumably, this is for all of the people who we just invited to sit down with us, to celebrate together in Israel.

This year we are enslaved, next year we will be free.

Another interesting juxtaposition of sentences of here versus next year. Does this suggest that we are here now and enslaved and next year we will be free and in Israel? Or, should we rethink the entire discussion: are we reciting words that are thousands of years old, just as we point to matzahs of our ancestors? This entire scene is a reenactment of the last night in Egypt, when Jews were on the threshold of freedom, on their journey to the land of Israel.


The first night of Passover we do not simply imagine lives as slaves in Egypt nor our freedom that we have today. We reenact that pivotal moment of transforming ourselves in time, place and mental health which happened on the last night in Egypt, when we jumped forward and feasted and imagined life in the promised land, even while anchored in the reality of slavery.

Like no other year in over 3,000 years, with a pandemic upon us with many mourning departed loved ones and spending Seders in solitude, let us all say Ha Lachma Anya and pull forward that future of freedom to live full lives in the complete Jerusalem.


Related First One Through articles:

A Plague for Others

Ruth, The Completed Jew

Taking the Active Steps Towards Salvation

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A Plague for Others

When Covid-19 first began killing people in China it felt like a disease far away, a distant threat so remote it did not register. When it later arrived in Iran, the focus became the curious relationship between China and Iran, not that the disease was going global. Then it came to Italy, and just a short time later it was in almost every country.

Yet even as the virus found local victims, people chose to manufacture distance. This was only deadly for the elderly. It killed those with compromised health. There was no true need to worry, as the vast majority of people who tested positive for the coronavirus suffered from a mere cold.

That attitude was best captured in an interview with a teenager enjoying spring break in Florida “If I get corona, I get corona. I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.

This was a plague for “others” and the guidelines calling for “social-distancing” was not relevant for them.

It is something to consider during this holiday of Passover, when plagues came for the Egyptians.

The Quarantine of Goshen

The story of the plagues which helped free the Jews from slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago had two parts: the first nine plagues and the final one.

During the initial plagues, the land, animals and people of Egypt were attacked broadly with a variety of vermin and afflictions, except for the Jews as God protected them. However, for the final plague, the killing of the first born, the Jews were asked to take specific actions to facilitate their protection. They were to take a lamb, paint its blood on the doorposts of the house, roast the lamb and eat it; a slew of activities which were unnecessary for the first nine plagues. Clearly God was capable of inflecting a plague on segments of the population as He had done nine times before but for the final plague, God wanted the Jews to take a part in their own salvation.

The story of the tenth plague unfolds in three parts. First, Moses addressed Pharaoh in Exodus 11: 4-8 saying that God will kill every first-born in Egypt except for the Jews “in order that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” This plague was specifically designed to highlight the “other.” All people are not the same and will not be impacted the same way.

But the story and message seem to morph. In Exodus 12: 1-20 God addressed the Jews through Moses and Aaron with a detailed plan of the various steps the Jews needed to take during their last night in Egypt, and it wasn’t so much about how to pack. Tucked among the twenty sentences was a critical line “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” The key to avoiding the impact of the plague is “blood on the houses,” an item that was mentioned in passing six sentences earlier as part of a long list of things to do.

God had gone from not asking the Jews to do anything during the first nine plagues, to putting forth a long list of tasks, one of which was – incidentally – key to avoiding the impact of the plague.

In the third part of the revelation of the tenth plague, Moses addressed the Elders in Exodus 12: 21-27 and provided a much more direct plan for salvation: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.” Moses went to the crux of the matter to get the people to focus, directly connecting the blood on the doorposts to salvation. He also elaborated on God’s command telling people to stay inside – to self-quarantine – during the deadly plague.

The story of the deadly plague evolved in a curious fashion. At first Moses told Pharaoh that the plague will be very selective – it will only come for the first-born and only from Egyptians, because “the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” God sees that the people of Egypt and Israel are different and will act accordingly.

But it becomes less clear that this is actually true. God doesn’t seemingly recognize any difference as He asks the Jews to paint the outside of their homes with blood. It is the home markings that God sees. If Jews wandered the streets that night, they would presumably have died, which is why Moses clarified that no one should leave their houses. The distinction between Egyptians and Israelites that Moses discussed with Pharaoh was one of direction, not of personhood.

“Death of Pharaoh’s First Born” painted 1872 by Lawrence Alma -Tadema (1836-1912)

Plagues and deadly viruses may present as threats for “others” but that is delusional. Neither youth nor religion will serve as shield, and leaders as far back as Moses understood that directing people to self-quarantine in their homes is the best precaution.


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Taking the Active Steps Towards Salvation

The CoronavirUS is Not Us Versus Them

Defeating Haman’s Big Ten Sons and Modern Antisemitism

Kohelet, An Ode to Abel

Ruth, The Completed Jew

A Sofer at the Kotel

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Ten Good Men

This weekend, March 13, 2020, will witness the first weekend without an Orthodox Shabbat minyan in Westchester County NY in probably 150 years, as the coronavirus pandemic hit this community very directly. It is so severe, that the National Guard is being deployed in New Rochelle. Other shuls around the state, country and world are also canceling their organized services.

Quarantine zone in New Rochelle, NY, with the Young Israel of New Rochelle at center

The concept of at least ten men gathering for prayer together is considered to originate in Genesis 18, where Abraham argues with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.  In verse 23, Abraham asks God “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” He proceeds to argue that a large city should be spared if there are 50 good people living there. When God agrees, Abraham pushes further to lower the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, all of the way down to 10 people at which point he stops. He seemed to acknowledge that the minimum viability for a city is ten good people.

Sages used this story as the foundation to decide on a quorum and instituted a policy of ten men over the age of thirteen to be the baseline for a minyan where certain prayers and activities could take place, such as reading from the Torah.

But this week – the week after the holiday of Purim which saw the world turned upside down 2,400 years ago – is witnessing the flipping of a minyan on its very foundation. Whereas Abraham called for ten good men to save a city, the pandemic is prohibiting ten good men from assembling together. While the lack of ten doomed two cities, hundreds and thousands of good people are getting sick and under quarantine.

When Abraham argued with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, he did not ask if ten people were assembled in one place together; he just cared that there was a decent number of righteous people living in the area. So we ask and pray today, at a time when people are not able to congregate at their synagogues but must daven at home, may God realize the breadth and depth of good and righteous people living in our towns and bring peace and health to everyone.


Related First One Through articles:

Abraham’s Hospitality: Lessons for Jews and Arabs

Kohelet, An Ode to Abel

The Loss of Reality from the Distant Lights

Ruth, The Completed Jew

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Defeating Haman’s Big Ten Sons and Modern Antisemitism

The Book of Esther has a protagonist and antagonist with clear pedigrees. The protagonist, Mordecai is introduced in chapter 2, verse 5 as:

“In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite.”

The antagonist of the story, Haman, similarly has his legacy laid out in chapter 3, verse 1:

“Some time afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials.”

Each person is tied back to their father and further to show the essence of the person and family. Mordecai’s roots are in the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe abutting the Jewish holy capital city of Jerusalem. It is the tribe whose descendants came from Jacob’s (Israel’s) favorite son.

For his part, Haman is a descendant of the King Agag, the king of Amalek (Samuel 1, Chapter 15). Some generations before the story of Esther, a fellow member of Mordecai’s tribe of Benjamin, King Saul, failed to kill King Agag as directed by the Samuel the Prophet. The Amalekites were deemed forever evil, as the nation which attacked the Jewish people as they walked in the desert hundreds of years earlier, between slavery in Egypt and freedom in their promised land in Israel (Exodus 17).

The lineages of Mordecai and Haman are an essential part of the story. Two nations in Exodus faced off, with a powerful Amalek nation attacking a weaker Jewish one, followed by two kings in Samuel 1 where the stronger Jewish king failed to kill the king of Amalek. This current story is yet a further rung down ladder, with important laymen facing off. At this time, a respected Jew without real power confronts an anti-Semite with power due to his proximity to the king.

In this third chapter, the descendants of Benjamin and the Children of Israel thoroughly defeat the descendants of Agag and Amalek with the help of the Persian king.

But is there a fourth chapter to the saga? Is the Book of Esther the conclusion of the generational battles between Israel and Amalek with the killing of Haman?

The Jewish scribes give us a clue.

The megillah, the Book of Ether, is uniquely read twice a year. It is the the only one of the five megillot that is read from a parchment like the Torah itself, and has a blessing recited before it is read. As such, the physical writing instructs the listener as much as the words.

Esther chapter 9, reveals how the ten sons of Haman are murdered after their father is killed. Scribes write the names of the murdered progeny in a unique manner:

The name of each son is written with extra large letters and each name is distinct and separated from all other words on the page. It is the only time in the story that their names are even mentioned, and after they are, the text resumes its regular style print stating

“the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the foe of the Jews. But they did not lay hands on the spoil.”

The ten sons of Haman are not tied to royalty, the King Agag, as was their father; they are simply tied to the legacy of a notorious anti-Semite. That is the summation of what defines them.

These ten Jew haters were killed by the local Jews themselves (Esther 9:5) and not by royal edict as was the case for their father Haman. While they once appeared larger-than-life for the once weak Jews, the common Jews gathered strength to defeat not royalty, but mere Jew-haters.

The battles between the Children of Israel and Amalek had four chapters: between nations, between kings, between powerful laymen and ultimately between regular people. The Book of Esther tells the story of chapters three and four, and is read twice to make sure we internalize the message of defeating antisemitism: recognize that it is neither supreme or legal by royal decree. It is just Jew-hatred which comes in various sizes and shapes, all of which must be vanquished.


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Taking the Active Steps Towards Salvation

When Power Talks the Truth

Purim 2020, Jewish Haikus

Purim 2019, The Progressive Megillah

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Purim 2020, Jewish Haikus

While the format of a traditional haiku is seventeen syllables in a 5/7/5 format, for this Purim, I have decided to use the Jewish chai’ku which has 18 syllables in an escalating 5/6/7 format, with some license.


I don my costume
The latest from Disney.
Rabbi’s grandson wears the same.

Her name Hadassah
Later called Queen Esther
First of Her Name, Breaker of Chains.

We all hear “Haman”
The groggers fall silent
My stomach growls, loudly.

The good guys triumph!
How unusual. Ah,
Not written in Israel.

Megillah two times
Yet Chanukah has none!
Al Ha’nissim inequality.

Diaspora Purim
Large meal and much drinking
Why only a single day?

Mishloah Manot
Only need two items
But don’t want label “cheap friend.”

Stale Hamantashen
Clearly weak store-bought fare
I rummage to find homemade.

Yes, I like muhn
A single day a year
A sweeter poppy bagel.

Two weeks trapped inside
Called for “Calm” Purim shpiel.
What day is Purim Sheni?


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Purim 2019, The Progressive Megillah

Purim 5776/ 2016 Poem

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Chanukah and Fighting on Sabbath

Shuls, Jewish schools, community centers and kosher supermarkets have become battlegrounds in the United States over the past few years, much as they have been in the rest of the world for a long time. The spike in violent hate crimes against Jews has dwarfed those committed against any other group with recent murders in Pittsburgh, PA, Poway, CA and Jersey City, NJ.

Jewish communities all over the country are debating how to respond.

In 2015, New York City managed to push through a bill over the objections of several progressive politicians and organizations, to reimburse private schools – including Jewish day schools – for their security forces. That effort may have saved dozens of lives.

Synagogues are now debating whether they need to hire police officers to guard their houses of worship, or at least have people within the community be on alert, perhaps armed.

Many synagogues have turned to a group called the Community Security Service (CSS), which has been actively working with Jewish communities around the country for several years to help them prevent and prepare for emergency situations. As stated on their website:

“CSS provides a wide range of security services at no cost to the Jewish community. From securing thousands of events every year to helping secure facilities, we are the community security experts. Our teams are part of the community, trained by the community, here to protect the community, acting as a key force multiplier for law enforcement. CSS thrives to preserve our way of life and respect Jews from every walk of life. Our organization is supported by Jewish leaders, organizations, and law enforcement. Through our organization, the Jewish community receives the highest level of security training, our teams become the eyes and ears of the community, partnering up with law enforcement to help secure our community in an undisruptive, seamless way.”

Yet even with the training of the CSS and the spike in deadly attacks, many rabbis remain uncomfortable with Jews carrying weapons or using radios on the Sabbath, as it is considered a prohibited activity on the holy day.

It is therefore worth recounting the story of Chanukah, at least a particular one of the lesser known stories.

While many people are familiar with the story of the Maccabees defeating the Syrian-Greeks in battle and purifying the Temple of their pagan rituals, not all of the battles went well. As recounted by Josephus (37CE – 100CE), the Jewish historian in The Antiquities of the Jews in Book 12, Chapter 6, after the priest Matthias began the revolt, he and his sons fled into the desert:

“Many others did the same also; and fled with their children and wives into the desert; and dwelt in caves. But when the King’s generals heard this, they took all the forces they then had in the citadel at Jerusalem, and pursued the Jews into the desert. And when they had overtaken them, they, in the first place, endeavoured to persuade them to repent, and to choose what was most for their advantage; and not put them to the necessity of using them according to the law of war. But when they would not comply with their persuasions, but continued to be of a different mind, they fought against them on the sabbath day: and they burnt them, as they were in the caves, without resistance; and without so much as stopping up the entrances of the caves. And they avoided to defend themselves on that day, because they were not willing to break in upon the honour they owed the sabbath, even in such distresses. For our law requires that we rest upon that day. There were about a thousand, with their wives and children, who were smothered, and died in these caves. But many of those that escaped, joined themselves to Matthias, and appointed him to be their ruler. Who taught them to fight, even on the sabbath day; and told them, that “Unless they would do so, they would become their own enemies, by observing the law [so rigorously,] while their adversaries would still assault them on this day; and they would not then defend themselves: and that nothing could then hinder, but they must all perish, without fighting.” This speech persuaded them. And this rule continues among us to this day; that, if there be a necessity, we may fight on sabbath days.

Over 2,100 years ago, Jews observed the Sabbath to such a degree that they allowed themselves to be slaughtered rather than put up any resistance. More men, women and children died during one of the first Sabbaths of the Maccabean revolt, than died at Masada 200 years later. But few remember the story.


Judas The Maccabee Defeats His Enemies,
painting by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

During this Chanukah which is celebrated against a backdrop of terrible violence against Jews, let us remember all of the stories of the holiday, and make sure that every Jewish place of worship is completely prepared to handle any situation which may arise.

Wishing you a happy and very peaceful Chanukah.


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I See Dead People

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The Loss of Reality from the Distant Lights

On the fourth day of creation God set the Sun and Moon in the sky. Placed millions of miles from the Earth, the Sun did more than allow life to exist on the planet; it allowed time to be measured in seconds and seasons.

The distance between Earth and Sun changes throughout the year bringing warmer and colder weather, and the rotation of the Earth produces evolving shadows from the sunlight which enables people to tell time. As the seasons and time of day change, our views of the world around us also change. One minute the item before us may be almost black. The next it could be purple, followed by blue and red then brown. Our senses take in the natural world, and its constant evolution.

The mountains of Las Vegas at 6:16, 6:20, 6:23, 6:29 and 6:45am
(photos: First.One.Through)

The moon and stars also enable mankind to chart its path during the night. The various natural sources of light enable people know where they stand in time and place.

Man’s Ever-Encroaching Light and Lit Content

Man was able to harness and control some of nature’s light in developing and using torches and lanterns over thousands of years. However, it was in 1878 with the creation of the first light bulb that mankind began to change the essence of how we see the natural world.

It its first decades of existence, light bulbs illuminated its immediate surroundings. The light bulb first lit up a circumference of several feet and then, as the power grew, it illuminated even larger areas. But in 1927, the very nature of man’s light changed, as it also became the focus of attention with the creation of the television. No longer was man’s light used only to appreciate the natural world; it was used as a replacement to the natural world. Man’s light became embedded with its own truth.

For decades, that source of light and content remained roughly eight to ten feet from our eyes. That abridged space still afforded our eyes the ability to incorporate some other items in our peripheral vision. But the distance would continue to shrink over time, as would our incorporation of the natural world.

The first computers came to corporations in the 1960’s and individuals began to acquire them in the 1980’s and 1990’s, bringing the lit screens just two to four feet from our eyes. The distance would shrink again in the 21st century, as smartphones with luminous screens were welcomed into the hands of the masses, shrinking the space between our eyes and the screens to just one to two feet. Now, with the advent of virtual reality goggles, all space has disappeared.

AT&T’s vision for new virtual reality games based on its DC characters

The distance which had afforded us the space to see God’s creations has been eliminated. The natural world is shut out in favor of man-made reality.

Man’s Reality: The Destruction of Time and of Man

For centuries, mankind did not only use the sunlight to tell the time of day, it understood the nature of how the world changed based on the sunlight.

In the 1890’s French artist Claude Monet painted a series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. While the subject of the church’s facade remained constant, Monet changed the color scheme based on the lighting of the sun. In doing so, each work of art was inherently time-stamped. A viewer understood whether the painting of the church was from the morning, during the day or at sunset, based on the palette of colors.

In the 1960’s, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein recreated the Monet series in his own style.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Rouen Cathedral series at The Broad
(photo: First.One.Through)

The various colors used by Monet designed to show the cathedral under different lighting conditions in moments of time was replaced by Lichtenstein into uniform sets of color. Lichtenstein’s yellow Rouen no longer conveyed daytime, his red was not sunset and his navy could not be considered night. The pop artist eliminated the element of time, as color was just meant as color, available in any and all shades.

Lichtenstein’s style also replaced Monet’s varied and emotional brushstrokes with machine-like circles. While he painted the artworks by hand, Lichtenstein gave his artwork a poster-like, mass produced cold feeling.

In just 70 years, man migrated from personal, emotional expressions of how sunlight influenced the world around us, to art which minimized both time and man’s own unique creativity.

The “Triumph” of Man’s/ Computer’s Virtual Reality

Until roughly 2008, the use of the internet ran roughly along working hours as people logged into their computers at work. However, with the ubiquity of connected cellphones and tablets, data consumption during the morning and evening hours – all of the way until 11:00pm – has now matched, and in some cases surpassed, data usage at work. People are consuming video content during all of their waking hours, and doing it at closer and closer distances to their eyes.

Technology is eliminating the physical space which enables us to absorb God’s natural world, as we allow ourselves to be ensnared by man’s manufactured reality. While the circling sun let us know that time moved on, the digital lights blind us of those same lost moments.

The sad loss of reality afforded by God’s distant lights will be rapped in the future by an avatar during a cinematic sequence in a virtual reality game. And alas, the masses will never understand the reference, as they parry the poetry to pursue additional precious points.


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The Descendants of Noah

After God destroyed most of the world in the flood, He promised that He would never use water to destroy all living things again. After that covenant, the three sons of Noah – Shem, Cham and Japheth – embarked on settling the world anew:

שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה אֵ֖לֶּה בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ וּמֵאֵ֖לֶּה נָֽפְצָ֥ה כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole world branched out. (Genesis 9:19)

Genesis 10 relayed the descendants of the three sons and early bibles sought to educate people where each of those children settled by including maps inside the bound volumes. The most famous of these was one completed by a Benedectine Monk named Arias Montanus in the 16th century.

Benedict Arias Montanus Sacrae Geographiae Tabulam ex Antiquissimorum Cultor (1571)

Benito Arias Montanus (1527-1598) was born in Spain and entered the priesthood around 1559 where he gained a reputation as an important biblical scholar. In 1568, he was commissioned by King Phillip II to supervise a new polygot (multi-language) bible which would become part of the king’s scholarly volumes on the bible. This work was to replace the first “Royal Bible” completed by the Escorial Library in 1514.

Written in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Syriac, and printed in Antwerp between 1569 and 1573, the polygot bible caused a stir. Montanus was reported to the Spanish Inquisition for purportedly giving preference to the Jewish rabbinic reading of the scriptures. His trial lasted several years and the Inquisition was finally convinced by the biblical scholar Juan de Mariane that Montanus’s interpretation of the text did not contradict Catholic dogma, acquitting him in 1580.

Montanus’s world map above shows the descendants of Shem, Cham and Japheth in Hebrew and Latin. Japeth’s sons are listed in the center of the map in Roman numerals; Shem’s sons are listed on the right side and indexed with numbers, while Cham’s sons are indexed with letters.

Japhet’s sons are portrayed as covering Europe. Sepharad is located in modern Spain, Sarphat is placed in France and Yavan in Greece – just like the modern Hebrew names for those countries. The lone exception is Madai who is placed in modern Iran. Biblical scholars consider Madai to be connected to the ancient Persian people of Medes.

Cham’s sons are placed throughout the Middle East and Africa, stretching from modern Iran to Morocco and Kenya. Mizrayim and Pelishtim are both located in northern Egypt, while Canaan is found in modern Jordan.

The children of Shem, from whom Abraham and the Jewish people are descended, were placed on the map from eastern Europe, Iraq and Kuwait eastward over China and Russia with a land bridge to the Americas. In a fascinating placement, Montanus placed Ophir both in modern-day California and Peru. It is a curious placement because Ophir was the city from which King Solomon imported gold to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 10:11). While it was known at this time that the Aztecs in Mexico had considerable gold, gold was not discovered in California for another 275 years.


The descendants of Noah scattered over the planet as described in Genesis 11:31, “according to their families, their languages, their lands and their nations.” They are part of the opening of the bible, before the text narrows its focus to the foundation of the Jewish people relocating from modern Iraq to modern Israel in the story of the Jewish patriarch, Abraham. Much like the nations of the world, the Jews would establish their nation in their land with their own language as descendants of their families’ ancestors of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.


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The Relationship of Man and Beast

The Journeys of Abraham and Ownership of the Holy Land

Abraham’s Hospitality: Lessons for Jews and Arabs

The Jewish Holy Land

Ruth, The Completed Jew

Kohelet, An Ode to Abel

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Kohelet, An Ode to Abel

The book of Kohelet, Ecclesisates, always struck me as a peculiar portion to read on the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkot holiday is described in Jewish prayers as “Zman Simchateynu,”‘ meaning the “time of our happiness.” Yet the book of Kohelet does not inspire such emotions.

From its opening sentences, the author appears intent on giving us full warning about the dark philosophical lesson to be shared over twelve chapters:

דִּבְרֵי֙ קֹהֶ֣לֶת בֶּן־דָּוִ֔ד מֶ֖לֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem.

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!

King Solomon, the wisest man in the world who built the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, declared that “everything is futile and without meaning.” Quite a jarring and alarming sentiment. If someone of his intellect, who ruled the united kingdom of Israel at its peak can state that everything is pointless, what should an average person believe? How is such a sentiment to be read and internalized on the happy holiday?

In chapter after chapter, Solomon laid out that every human effort and emotion is for naught. Labor (1:3), beauty (1:8), wisdom (1:13-16), laughter (2:1-2), building projects (2:4-6), amassing wealth (2:7-11) are fleeting and without substance or longevity:

“10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

A man with all the wisdom, power and wealth a person could ever imagine had reached the conclusion that his efforts amounted to nothing. His existence was but a whiff of air.

So a reader is left empty. Sitting in synagogue seats on a Sabbath morning during Sukkot, a person squirms and pivots from Zman Simchateynu, a time of happiness, to depression. Is the true message of the season less about surviving the Day of Judgement at Yom Kippur the week before, to internalizing the temporary nature of life, like the huts Jews live in today during the holiday to commemorate the tents which Jews lived in during their forty years wandering from Egypt to Israel, and the pillar of cloud which God placed to protect them (Exodus 13:20-22)? Hooray, we live! But so what?

Such thoughts are depressing and stand at odds with the sentiment of the holiday. One must imagine that the rabbis who advocated reading Kohelet on Sukkot may have had another message for people to extract from Solomon’s words.

Solomon’s Intent

It is possible that the wise king was simply being modest in Kohelet or did not want to be the focus of the world’s envy regarding his status and accomplishments. It is also conceivable that Solomon was so wise that he was able to see into the future and saw that the kingdom which he ruled would soon be torn apart and that the Temple which he built would one day be destroyed.

“הֲבֵ֧ל הֲבָלִ֛ים אָמַ֥ר הַקּוֹהֶ֖לֶת הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility—said Koheleth— All is futile!” (12:8)

But there is another point worth considering.

The Jewish calendar is arranged so that Kohelet is always read publicly a few days before the Torah is finished and restarted on Simchat Torah. The Torah concludes with the end of Jewish wandering and entering the promised land of their forefathers, paired with the opening stories of the bible relaying the creation of the world and mankind.

Finishing the bible and restarting it has been a cycle which Jews have continued for thousands of years, rereading the first thousands of years of Jewish history over and again.

That history had ups and downs with heroes and villains. In restarting the Torah, Jews have a moment to connect to the stories of their favorite characters. Perhaps it was Noah who saved mankind from the destruction of the flood, or Abraham, the original monotheist, or Joseph who saved the world from starvation or Moses who took the Jewish people out of bondage.

The bible is replete with people who helped form the Jewish people into the nation which would enter their holy land by the end of the Torah. Each had a hand in crafting the character of the people.

That excitement about retelling the stories of the biblical forefathers who charted the history of the Jews is seemingly directly counter to Solomon’s Kohelet message. Solomon wrote that everything is meaningless, but we read the bible and conclude otherwise: people make a big difference.

King Solomon’s message may be more nuanced than our plain reading of Kohelet.

Consider that King Solomon had a different hero than most of us who are pulled by the classic narratives of champions and leaders. His hero was seemingly a more simple person whose only mark was worshiping God wholeheartedly. That person’s name covers the entire book of Kohelet: Abel.

Much is lost in the translation from Hebrew, as “הֶ֙בֶל֙” in Genesis is not transliterated as Hevel but translated as “Abel”, and in Ecclesiates it is translated as “futile” or “meaningless.” However, in Hebrew, the words are identical.

We know little of  הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel other than he was a shepherd and offered the best of his flock to God for an offering (Genesis 4:4). God accepted the offering and Abel was killed by his brother shortly thereafter. Unlike King Solomon, הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel had no wife or children, no riches or possessions. We never even learn about any of Abel’s emotions like his family members who were embarrassed (Adam and Eve) or angry (Cain). הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel simply watched sheep and made an offering to God.

And that was the totality of his life.

For Solomon, הֶ֙בֶל֙/Abel’s name will forever live in its purest form, while his murderer will forever be marked as a villain who could not escape his secret crime.

ט֥וֹב שֵׁ֖ם מִשֶּׁ֣מֶן ט֑וֹב וְי֣וֹם הַמָּ֔וֶת מִיּ֖וֹם הִוָּלְדֽוֹ׃

A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.” (Kohelet 7:1)

Solomon ended Kohelet with a clear message:

וְיֹתֵ֥ר מֵהֵ֖מָּה בְּנִ֣י הִזָּהֵ֑ר עֲשׂ֨וֹת סְפָרִ֤ים הַרְבֵּה֙ אֵ֣ין קֵ֔ץ וְלַ֥הַג הַרְבֵּ֖ה יְגִעַ֥ת בָּשָֽׂר׃

A further word: Against them, my son, be warned! The making of many books is without limit And much study is a wearying of the flesh.

ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:

כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃

[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]

that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind.” (12:12-14)

Solomon wrote many books during his lifetime and his father, King David, wrote many psalms. But for Solomon, those don’t really matter. At this time of year, the Jewish people are once again about to read together about their foundation story: the central canon of Judaism, the Five Books of Moses. It is the nation’s time to connect to its ancestors.

Kohelet is not read on Sukkot as a way of adding to the happiness of the holiday; it is the preamble to the Torah to consider the way our ancestors lived and how to model our lives. For the rabbis concerned that people will be drawn to the biblical kings and warriors, leaders and builders, the call to read the text through a prism of connecting to God was captured best in Solomon’s Kohelet.

Solomon’s wisdom is summed up with a simple solitary suggestion: to revere God. Every other action or emotion is inconsequential.

A good name lives forever in a story which is read forever. For King Solomon, the purest person who focused solely on God and nothing else was הֶ֙בֶל֙.


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Bilhah and Zilpah Get Their Due

A satire.

Rabbi Jonina Jett finished the last refrain of her song and put the guitar down alongside the holy ark which held the temple’s two torahs. She fixed her pink and white tallit which had slipped down her black leather jacket and moved towards the microphone to address the one hundred or so worshipers.

Her congregation at Sisters of Tikkun Olam in California were used to passionate sermons from their outspoken life minister, but she was clearly more agitated that Saturday morning.

“My dear sisters,” Rabbi Jett began, “today is World Population Day, the day when we all must speak loudly about the real threat of the human population growing wildly out of control. It is a growing risk which has exacerbated climate change and threatens our planet and our very existence.”

She paused to survey her lesbian Jewish parishioners. A few began to nod in agreement, so she leaned in a bit more.

“Bernie Sanders told the world the truth: that we need to think about radical population control to save our world. It is the very essence of tikkun olam, repairing the damage that we have caused.” The very mention of Sanders brought the whole congregation together and everybody nodded in agreement. A few womyn even clapped.

“We are not living in the totalitarian world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” where almost everybody is infertile! It’s the very opposite, where only a few of us holy sisters are taking action with our bodies and choosing to NOT have children while much of the world falls under the weight and might of the patriarchy!” Pay dirt. The call of “patriarchy” brought the crowd to its feet.

Her point made, Rabbi Jett pivoted the speech.

“Yes, yes! We have taken responsibility for our lives and our planet! Each of us has acted in noble ways in our homes. But today I want to talk to you about something we should do as a community, right here in our sanctuary, in our liturgy. I want all of you to open your prayer books to the Amidah, the silent prayer.”

The audience became a congregation again and took their seats, flipping open the prayer books until the found they right page.

“Decades ago, feminist and progressive rabbis altered the opening lines of this central prayer to add the names of the matriarchs of Judaism: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. They broke with the mold of a male-dominated history and connection to God. But they did not do enough.” Becoming emotional, she cleared her throat and took a sip of water before continuing.

“Like all of you, I have watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” several times. I have been shaken to my core at a world that actually does NOT seem so different from our own. A world where women’s bodies are treated as possessions, in which society decides the fate of our beings and our offspring. We must all internalize that this dystopian world is not just a creation of fiction, but has basis in fact. In our own religion.

“Our own matriarchs and patriarchs used women as breeding machines. Four of the twelve tribes were brought into this world by the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah. One-third of the Jewish people.” She paused to let the point sink in. “And we have erased these mothers. Their bodies are not buried in Hebron. We do not speak their names.

“But they have names, and it is time to recognize the dark side of our history.

“There is a pen in front of each of you and I want you to take it and write the names of ‘Bilhah and Zilpah‘ right after our treasured matriarchs. These women are part of our story too. We owe it to them, to the modern day sexual slaves around the world, and to ourselves to remember them each and every day.”

As the congregation dutifully inscribed their prayer books, Rabbi Jett removed her jacket and showed everyone the new tattoos of “Bilhah” and “Zilpah” inked in Hebrew letters on her left forearm. “Let us never forget our fellow women, or we will be doomed to follow their fate.”

While her face was cold and determined, Rabbi Jett smiled to herself as she watched her flock follow her lead mouthing the names of “Bilhah’ and ‘Zilpah’.


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